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As Amazon Studios continues to flex its muscles with more and more pilots — each batch matching or improving on the last — the talk always seems to be about how it will be Netflix’s biggest competitor.
But in Transparent, which Amazon is billing as a “dark comedy,” the studio has made one of those rare shows that alters the complexion of the landscape with its quality.
The show isn’t a shot from Amazon Studios across the bow of fellow streaming service Netflix; it’s an ambitious and accomplished series on the level of the shining lights on HBO. Netflix has yet to compete in the same arena that Transparent is playing in — sophisticated, introspective, indie-movie quality fare that may have a smaller audience than the vastly different Orange Is the New Black, for example, but flaunts more purposefully measured tones and nuance.
Of course, we’re living in amazing times, quality-wise, and also in a world where it’s less important who made it than the simple fact that you can find it. The modern viewing experience is inclusive; the pedigree of the content generator is less a factor than the content itself.
So on Sept. 26, when Amazon Studios puts all 10 half-hour episodes online, viewers should make it a point to experience what creator, writer and director Jill Soloway (Afternoon Delight, Six Feet Under) has crafted.
Transparent is the story of Mort Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor in yet another exemplary performance), who gathers up his three grown children to tell them something important.
Immediately, they all think he’s got cancer. They talk about it like it’s a foregone conclusion and even move the discussion toward what happens when he dies. But he doesn’t have cancer. Mort is becoming Maura, the female trapped in Mort’s body since, well, he first started thinking something was different at about the age of 5.
It’s a transformation that is both lovely and hilarious, shocking but not upsetting, a new curveball for the Pfefferman family to get a read on before it rushes in on them.
The oldest daughter is Sarah (Amy Landecker), married with two children but suffering through that period in marriage when both spouses are sniping at each other, the sex is an afterthought if it’s even a thought, and secretly there’s the notion of escape. For Sarah, the complication is that a college lesbian lover is back in the picture, as both have kids at the local preschool.
One of the show’s best moments comes when Mort/Maura, who couldn’t tell the kids the truth when he gathered them for dinner, has the idea for his perfect reveal foiled when he accidentally catches Sarah making out with Tammy (Melora Hardin). It’s a pivotal scene and the tone is perfect. Tammy immediately gets it and compliments Maura on her looks, uses “she” instead of “he” and later speaks of the bravery behind it. Sarah tries to undercut her shock with a joking tone — asking her dad if he’s going to dress up as a woman every day now. “All my life, my whole life, I’ve been dressing up as a man,” Mort/Maura says, the weight of the words and their importance catching in the throat. “This is me.”
Middle child Josh (Jay Duplass) is in the music business and successful enough, though facing a reality that might be difficult for him to grasp or survive (and hiding a big secret). Youngest daughter Ali (Gaby Hoffmann) is the directionless genius whose incredible intellect can’t translate to a day job, partly because she’s depressive and partly because she doesn’t seem to like any boundaries (honestly, all three kids are spoiled; “They are so selfish,” Maura says, sadly, to her LBGT support group).
Add to this mix Mort/Maura’s ex-wife, Shelly (Judith Light), and you have a real handful.
What Soloway has managed to create in this simultaneously funny and emotionally resonant series are immediately intriguing characters whose actions are interesting in and of themselves. But they spin around Maura, a uniquely constructed character finally letting her real self come out and experiencing the massive, reverberating changes brought on by that decision while navigating it with insight and acerbic wit. It’s arguably a career-defining performance by Tambor — “arguably” being used as a qualifier only because he seems to be able to define almost every part he takes (from classics of The Larry Sanders Show and Arrested Development to any number of smaller film and television roles) as forever memorable. Tambor can seemingly do anything, but what he does in Transparent is broaden his range with a multilayered performance, from small hand gestures to the way he changes his body when wearing women’s clothing to the open-mouth, slack-jawed face that looks sad and vulnerable in makeup.
Tambor and Soloway make it clear that what Maura faces going forward, starting with the varied reactions of her children and ex-wife to the world at large, will take a toll. Those moments are more tender and dramatic than funny, but Transparent has Hoffmann and Duplass, and to a lesser extent Landecker (her role is more serious), to perfectly express the verbal acuity of Soloway’s lines. Duplass and Hoffmann on a road trip would make a nice spinoff series at some point.
All told, Transparent is a surprisingly poignant, funny and mature piece of work. We expect these kinds of top-tier gems to be manufactured at HBO, but probably shouldn’t be surprised that the creative leaps made from online streaming outlets could one day bridge that gap.
That day is here.